Oil Report

Radical Mexican leftist in lead for party leader

MEXICO CITY, March 17 (Reuters) - A fiery leftist who shook Mexico with weeks of street protests in 2006 looked set to take another step toward a political comeback as a close ally took the lead in the main opposition party’s leadership race.

Alejandro Encinas, former mayor of the capital, was ahead in exit polls in the early hours of Monday after a vote on Sunday to elect a new leader for the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

Encinas was ahead by 50 percent to 42 percent for moderate rival Jesus Ortega in one exit poll. Another poll gave him 49 percent to 44 percent for Ortega. Official results were due later on Monday.

A win by Encinas would be a boost to his political mentor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who claims his defeat in the July 2006 presidential election was rigged and refuses to recognize President Felipe Calderon’s election.

It would give weight to a new campaign of protests by Lopez Obrador against government proposals to allow private alliances in oil, and would also set the party on a more radical path ahead of mid-term congressional elections in 2009.

Encinas was mayor of Mexico City when Lopez Obrador had thousands of supporters set up sit-in protest camps over his election defeat, paralyzing the city center for weeks.

Sunday’s election was seen as a gauge of the left’s support for Lopez Obrador, a former indigenous rights activist, as he returns to the limelight over the oil debate.

As well as vowing to blockade roads and airports to protest at what he sees as privatization of oil, Lopez Obrador has irked the ruling conservatives by leading graft accusations against Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino this month.

A planned congressional probe could bring down the ally Calderon appointed to help push through the oil reform.

Encinas, like Lopez Obrador, does not recognize Calderon as president, and analysts expect that under him the PRD will boycott a congressional debate over a new energy law, Calderon’s most ambitious reform attempt to date.

“Encinas would take the party further outside negotiations in Congress. He’s going to marginalize more liberal groups and fortify the strategy of unsettling the government,” said analyst Marcela Bobadilla at Mexico’s IMEP think tank.

Lopez Obrador, who plans a large street rally for the 70th anniversary of the expropriation of the oil sector on March 18, has seized on an issue that stirs strong passions. Half the country opposes private investment in oil, recent polls show.

“If Encinas wins they may not even present it,” said political analyst Carlos Sirvent of the reform plan.

The PRD was created around 20 years ago as opposition grew to seven decades of one-party rule that was ended by conservative Vicente Fox’s 2000 election victory.

The outcome of the 2006 election split the party into moderates and backers of the more radical Lopez Obrador. (Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Doina Chiacu)